Today I prepare to enter the brand new state of Ohio, but I’m more looking forward to wheeling around Wheeling. For decades I’ve been distantly intrigued by Wheeling, a city of 28,000 people pinned to the geographically curious West Virginia panhandle.
First you must understand that I’ve been fascinated with borders and maps since I was in second grade when I began reading atlases at recess. I played kickball, too, but an atlas was more exciting. By fifth grade I knew the capital of almost every country and could easily identify national flags worldwide.
In college I studied geography, which actually had nothing to do with what Americans perceive as “geography” (i.e. capital cities, rivers and mountain ranges). I sought out my only classmate from West Virginia because I read that he was from Wheeling. We never became friends, so today is my best chance to meet the locals and finally experience a long-awaited rendezvous with Wheeling.
Getting here is easy breezy. A flat trail along the old Panhandle Railroad tracks makes for an ideal morning ride. Cardinal Plant, a coal-fired power station, puffs smoke from across the river in Brilliant, Ohio.
On the way into town I gain an appreciation for the city’s history from placards along the trail. With its strategic access to the Ohio River and position along the National Road, Wheeling’s industrial importance created wealth and innovation that rivaled cities on the East Coast.
Water works were installed in Wheeling before New York and Boston. Firefighters started servicing Wheeling just four years after paid professionals replaced volunteers in NYC.
Iron foundries, glass and textile factories, including J.L. Stifel & Sons’ calico printing, flourished here. So did cigars. Marsh Wheeling Stogies operated for 161 years as the blue collar smoke favorited by workmen. Up to 3 million stogies per week rolled out of this factory, although since 2001 the cigars are made in Indiana.
The biggest testament to Wheeling’s early importance is its stately suspension bridge. Completed in 1849, the “Gateway to the West” was the first bridge to cross the Ohio River and the longest suspension bridge in the world until the Brooklyn Bridge beat it in 1883. (John Roebling, architect of Brooklyn’s bridge, actually lost the bid to build this one.) Nevertheless, this remains the most important pre-Civil War bridge left standing in the nation and the oldest suspension bridge in the world to still carry vehicles.
Wheeling Brewing Company
This historical high is making me hungry. A local on the bike path suggests lunch at Later Alligator or Coleman’s Fish Market, a family-owned tradition since 1914. I naturally pedal for the historic choice, even if their famed fried fish is sandwiched between two slices of plain white bread. The Brooklyn foodie in me recoils in disgust.
I lock my bike outside of Coleman’s. The scent of fried fish tempts my nose, but Wheeling Brewing Company catches my eye. The eyes have it. This newbie (Facebook page here), founded 100 years after Coleman’s, is all about West Virginia brews and locally sourced ingredients.
I self-consciously drag Travoy into the restaurant and take a seat along the exposed brick wall. Josh has been watching me lock my bike and has some questions before taking my order. Next thing I know the owner Chad clomps in wearing full cycling regalia from clip-in shoes to helmet bike light.
Wheeling was once the wealthiest U.S. city per capita, Chad tells me, but has faded from grace since its mid-19th century industrial heyday.
“We’re on the way back up!” Josh cries, citing this “keeping it local” style restaurant as the first of its kind in Wheeling.
Good things are brewing here. I dive into a complimentary hummus platter before my blackened fillet of catfish with delicious veggies arrives. Josh is an affable and attentive server and genuinely supportive of my ride. He wishes he could do something similar, but his dreams will have to wait. His girlfriend is pregnant.
Josh suggests that I spend the night in Wheeling. I wish I could at least spend the afternoon boozing and schmoozing, but it’s already 2 PM and Ohio awaits.
I ride past West Virginia’s Independence Hall and Wheeling’s Capitol Theatre, a Beaux-Arts beauty that opened as a vaudeville house in 1928 with a $1 million price tag. I cross the single lane Wheeling Suspension Bridge as boat motors roar from the vintage regatta in the river below.
I look back at the buildings above the river and smile with satisfaction at finally having seen Wheeling. I wonder what my second grade self would have thought if it could have seen me now. Probably this: “On that bike? Jeff, you’re crazy.”
I leave West Virginia on a high note, but what awaits in Ohio is the worst stretch of riding since Atlantic City.